Robert Shearer has had painful migraines since he was 12 years old. His headaches are so bad that he took disability leave from his job. To relax and deal with the pain, the 43-year-old Richmond resident practices meditation.
“It’s difficult to do a 40-hour a week job when I don’t know from one day to the next what my pain is going to be like,” Shearer said. “Meditation is not a cure, at least not for me, but it sure helps me cope.”
Meditation is a practice that can be used to achieve many goals — to elicit a relaxation response, focus the mind, create greater awareness, or as part of a spiritual journey. It is widely — and increasingly — used in concert with medical treatment to help patients deal with their conditions, from cancer to AIDS to anxiety and mild depression. Techniques vary, from the use of mantras and visualization to focusing on one’s breath.
[Dr. Magdalena] Naylor said she teaches patients techniques so they are not overwhelmed by their pain. Shearer does meditation to elicit a relaxation response, a state that through many years of practice, he can bring on within several minutes. Although his headaches are still just as painful, Shearer said he can deal with the ache better as a result of meditation. He also said meditation helps him clarify his thinking and concentrate better.
“Through the use of meditation you can reach a point where you feel pain but you don’t suffer. You don’t get the distress that goes along with pain,” Shearer said.
The distinction between pain and suffering is an important one. Pain may be necessary but suffering is not. Suffering can be defined as pain plus judgment or non-acceptance. Interestingly, that non-acceptance (or fighting against the pain) tends to increase the pain itself so when we meditate we not only alleviate suffering, we also sometimes reduce the actual pain as well.
[Another patient] worked with Dr. Arnold Kozak, a Burlington psychologist who teaches mindful meditation to patients, many of whom have serious medical conditions such as cancer, AIDS or heart conditions, or have impulse-control problems or mild depression.
“Coping with their conditions is one thing,” Kozak said. “What circulates through people’s minds tends to be the problem.¤... People are engaged in a story about what’s going on with them and it causes regret, anxiety and worry.”
Unlike Shearer, who does meditation to relax, Kozak teaches mindfulness meditation as a way to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment, usually in the body. Relaxation is generally a side effect, but not the primary focus, Kozak said. Other benefits include increased ability to cope, reduced anxiety and stress levels, some increase in positive emotions and acceptance of chronic pain.
“They can use it as a tool, just as with medication, to cope with conditions,” Kozak said. “It helps them be able to actively intervene.”
Isn't that what we really need - the ability to intervene and not be taken hostage by our situation and our mental reactions? But it's really necessary to practice meditation regularly to get these benefits. It won't work if you only try it when you're in distress. The skill must be cultivated.